Traditional Christmas Latino Meals And The History Behind Them
Latinos have played an pivotal role in American cuisine since the very beginning. But the wealth and complexity of Latin food traditions goes far beyond Taco Tuesdays and happy hour margaritas. Each Latin American country boasts its own unique flavors, and while several of the same dishes exist in different forms throughout North, South, and Central America, each culture’s recipes are distinctly its own. The real beauty about Latin cuisine in the US is that these distinct cultural identities all have their place in our country’s vast gastronomic canon, maintaining their original shape while also merging into a stunning mezcla of vibrant new culinary customs.
While family tradition is super important in the Latino kitchen—with recipes being passed down from generation to generation—many old school dishes are being adapted in lieu of modern culinary trends.
And this makes sense. From food to music to fashion, cultural exchange is how new innovations and creative ideas come to life. But it is especially common in the realm of cuisine—we need food to survive, after all, and we are always seeking new ways to make this basic necessity a bit more interesting and enjoyable. In places like the US, where countless cultures coexist and overlap, it’s inevitable that different culinary traditions would borrow from each other and coalesce to make something totally fresh and distinct.
So what are some of the most classic Latino food traditions? How have they morphed and changed over time? And how have they stayed the same?
Tamales are a quintessential dish in many Latin American countries, though they differ from place to place. Yet the tradition of preparing tamales communally and collaboratively stands the test of both time and geography, as it is so often a group effort guided by la abuela’s magical, age-old tamale skills. With ancient Mesoamerican origins, the tamale will always be the root of blossoming Latinx cuisine—there’s nothing like the smell of steam rising from the tamalera and filling la cocina with goodness. They are the ultimate comfort food, and they’ve maintained their integrity, as they are too classic to change in any major sense. And the best way to eat tamales? With a steamy cup of champurrado in hand.
Guacamole is a beloved concoction all over the world, though it originated in South Central Mexico several thousand years ago. Over time, it evolved from a prized Aztec dish to a ubiquitous and highly coveted snack that—in the US, anyway—spikes in popularity during certain events, like the Superbowl. Because of its simplicity, guacamole serves as a canvas for culinary creativity, with several different incarnations since its original blend of avocados, herbs, and spices. With guacamole, there opportunities to experiment are truly endless.
The michelada has also evolved into a canvas of sorts, inviting people to create elaborate versions of this classic Mexican drink. Similar to the popular Bloody Mary, micheladas can sometimes serve as a whole meal, with entire salads floating atop the base of spicy, salty beer. Often, different types of mariscos are added, from shrimp to crab legs to octopus to oysters. Sometimes the michelada is adorned with varias frutas, like watermelon, pineapple, or blackberries. And occasionally, micheladas llevan all of the above! Like guacamole, the possibilities son infinitos.
Some version of ceviche is made all over Latin America, but it is widely believed to originate in Peru—it is certainly synonymous with Peruvian cuisine, and is considered a national Peruvian dish. Its defining feature is some type of raw fish that is cured by citrus juices, then spiced with various seasonings. In Costa Rica, the featured fish is typically tilapia or corvina, although mahi-mahi, shark and marlin are also commonly used. In Mexico and some parts of Central America, it is often served with tostadas. El Salvador and Nicaragua produce a version called ceviche de concha negra, which is dark in color and quite picante. And in the United States, its renditions are just as diverse, highlighting everything from shrimp to scallops to octopus.
Maiz (En Todas Sus Formas)
We’ve already mentioned tamales and champurrado, but corn is such a widespread culinary staple throughout Latin America, that it had to be repeated. Not only does corn form tortillas and masa, which are the base for a wide variety of different snacks and dishes (tacos, tostadas, tamales, etc.), but corn also appears in ancient drinks like Peruvian chicha and atole from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. It’s the highlight of that fantastic Mexican street snack, elote (btw, if you’ve never had elote helado, está buení simo and you need to find some ASAP). Latin American food would be a totally different beast without corn, so we’ve got to sing its praises!